Randy Pausch and the power of online media

I’ve been thinking some more about Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor whose inspirational “last lecture” became such a phenomenon over the past six months or so, and who just passed away this weekend from pancreatic cancer. I’ve written about the content of his lecture in a previous post, and again on the weekend when I heard of his death, but what I’ve been thinking about since then is how unique a phenomenon the Last Lecture video really is from a digital media point of view.

I think we take for granted sometimes how much the Web has changed our lives, in both large and small ways, and in some cases in small ways that only take on significance over time. Someone once said that people tend to over-estimate the effects of technology in the short term and under-estimate them over the longer term, and I think YouTube is a perfect example. We’ve all become accustomed to watching short clips of funny cats or skateboarders slipping and hurting themselves, or occasionally a music video or that kind of thing. No big deal, right?

But then along comes something like Randy Pausch’s last lecture, in which the almost irrepressibly upbeat professor and virtual-reality pioneer talks about achieving his dreams, and it becomes not just a viral YouTube hit, but crosses over to become a bona fide “real media” sensation, with appearances on Oprah and ABC and 20/20 and whatnot, followed by a book version of the lecture. But that’s not really the amazing part — the amazing part for me is that it became a phenomenon despite the fact that it is over an hour long. And not just that, but it features a guy doing nothing but talking. No cats. No nudity. No music.

Could something like Randy Pausch’s last lecture ever have become as widespread a phenomenon without YouTube and the Internet? I can’t see how. Maybe his lecture might have been videotaped and copies of the tape sent around to other professors, or to universities — or it might have shown up on PBS or the Discovery Channel (most likely after he had already passed away), where a couple of hundred thousand people might have seen it. He could have wound up on Oprah or Charlie Rose at some point, I suppose. But that’s just not the same.

Within weeks of his lecture — which I found out about just days after he delivered it, while reading the always wonderful Metafilter.com — Pausch’s video had tens of thousands of views, and within a month or two it had millions of them (it’s closing in on five million now). Even if you assume that not everyone watched the whole thing, I’m willing to bet that a substantial number watched enough to be touched by his message to some extent, whether they want to admit it or not. That is an incredibly powerful thing, when you think about it.

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